I have a hypothesis that emotional intelligence is a function of imagination. In other words, your ability to imagine the future is what drives your decisions today. If your imagined future looks like a big foggy nothing, you might as well enjoy today because tomorrow is unknowable. But if you can vividly imagine your future under different scenarios, you'll make hard choices today that will, you hope, get you to the future you imagine and want.

You probably saw a news item in which people were shown digitally aged pictures of themselves and asked how much money they were going to save for retirement. The people who saw older versions of themselves saved more. The digitally aged photos were like a substitute for imagination. So we have one data point that is consistent with the hypothesis that imagination is the key to emotional intelligence.

I had intense stomach aches for all of my waking hours during my childhood. I didn't know it at the time, but my body doesn't digest dairy or meat well, and I tended to have both of those things with every meal. I spent some part of almost every day doubled up in a fetal position. As an adult, I discovered that adjusting my diet was enough to eliminate my stomach problems. But during my childhood I would withdraw into my imagination to divert my thoughts from the pain. I've always wondered if all of that intense imagining made a permanent difference in my brain.

I can imagine the future so vividly that I was planning my retirement before I was out of grade school. That's literally true. Thanks to my clearly imagined future it seemed easy to modify what I was doing on any given day to make my dreams come true in the future. Today we call that sort of discipline emotional intelligence. At the time it felt like nothing more than a vivid imagination. Perhaps imagination and emotional intelligence are closely related.

This is an important idea because emotional intelligence is highly correlated with success, and I would be surprised if it wasn't a primary cause. So I wonder if imagination, like most other mental processes, can be improved with practice. If so, it would seem we have a direct lever for improving a person's emotional intelligence.

If you know some teens, ask them what they see for their future. Some kids will give you a detailed roadmap of their future career plans. I believe those kids imagine their future somewhat vividly and have started their planning early. Other teens seem to have no imagination of their own future and they act recklessly today because they don't see a compelling reason to plan for the unknown.

If imagination is the foundation of emotional intelligence, and emotional intelligence is the biggest factor in success, shouldn't we be training kids to better imagine their futures?

I would think that generic imagination skills alone would not be enough; one needs to imagine oneself in the future. Schools could create assignments in which kids are asked to write stories about their lives in the future. Or they could be asked to draw themselves as adults with their own kids, jobs, and homes. I have a hunch that sort of exercise would make a difference.

If you subscribe to the superstition of "will power" you might believe emotional intelligence is something that you either have or you don't. Perhaps you think the people who succeed have more of this magic thing called will power because they make hard choices today to improve their lives tomorrow. But will power is an illusion. People simply choose the path that looks best at the moment. And the moment is partly influenced by your imagined future. If you sharpen your imagination of your future, your preferences today might change, and to observers it will seem as though you have will power and emotional intelligence.

Perhaps the link between imagination and emotional intelligence is another reason role models are so important. A role model is a proxy for your imagination. It's easier to imagine having the life of someone you know than it is to imagine your own unknowable future.

I've written quite a bit about something called affirmations, which is a process in which you imagine your own preferred future at least once a day, usually by writing down your objectives multiple times. If the process of imagining your future helps you make hard choices today, it will seem to observers as if you have lots of emotional intelligence.

Does your common sense tell you that vividly imagining your preferred future improves your emotional intelligence today? I give that hypothesis an 80% chance of being right. What odds do you put on it?

I write a length about affirmations in a chapter of my new book, due out October 22nd, titled How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.

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Oct 5, 2013
there is definitely a strong correlation between imagination and impulse control.

but EQ and imagination are different animals. EQ is a realm of fear, anger, sadness. depth of feeling, awareness of feeling.

imagination is a specifically neocortex function. its a re-creation of senses or just ideas. the only place they overlap is simulating your emo sense and others behavior.

imagination and creativity arent synonymous either. creativity is imaginations generative side, but there is another entire half, simulation of known. originate versus recall.

there are already nuanced uses of these words. if you want to use different definitions you ought to define them beforehand.

general imagination and EQ are likely inversely proportional. those with high EQ spend more time in real world instead of daydreaming.
Oct 3, 2013
I think that the ability to successfully imagine our future is not so much about imagining the end point, but imagining the road there. This requires knowing the options and creating a plan. It's working backwards from your end goal and coming up with the steps to get there. This involves creativity and knowing the field of interest. I think creativity can be a fairly systematic process (eg. TRIZ method), so the real problem is gaining knowledge.

The affirmations can help keep your plan in front of you, so that when you hear conversations, meet people, read articles, you're more likely to pick up related information. It'll also get you to view things in the frame of getting to your goal. More information will help you see patterns and understand the field. Better understanding will make it more clear the best path to your goal because you'll have an idea what works and what does not (or how to evaluate whether an idea would work).
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 3, 2013
I think Scott is on to something by virtue that clearly the fewer of the aforementioned attributes you possess the more successful you'll be working in a corporation. Bob Lutz (VP Chrysler, Pres GM) was quoted saying, "In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is King, but to achieve consensus in a corporate meeting everybody tries to poke the eye out."
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 3, 2013
I often think about the first times I saw this comic strip in our city paper. I believe it was slipped in as a temporary replacement for some other strip I liked. I resented the replacement and thought, What a rotten, lazy artist this guy is. What is that stupid little bubble character, why is the printing so sloppy? But then I started to read the words and was hooked. Almost 25 years and many comic collections later I am still hooked. I figure with the money I have spent on Dilbert collections Scott has been able to afford a nice bathroom fixture or two.

In that same paper now, whereas Dilbert was at the bottom of the first page it is at the top. It replaced first D-ck Tracy, then Peanuts that had that spot for many years. And for the most part it has been deserving. Strip by strip, day by day I think the quality varies, if I may be permitted to benignly criticize a highly successful strip. But if one looks at the whole collection as shown in Dilbert 2.0, for instance, the quality of the achievement in comics terms is apparent. It is a worthy descendant of the work of Al Capp, and by the way some of the characters and situations might be seen as related.

To get to the point, I welcome the strip out-takes on the website. I would even buy a collection called The Unexpurgated Dilbert. But leave the naughtiness there and do not pretend to have controversies with the editorial people. The newspapers will soon get very different, anyway, if not totally disappear. Do nothing if possible to hasten their demise, otherwise all the comics they eventually print in their last days will be cheap stuff.

We used to try to slip things into our school newspapers and year books, and from the vantage of many years later, I can see it would have been better to work at being more quality clever than being nasty crude. I do not expect Mark Twain in Dilbert, but neither do I want to see underground comics junk. By the way, has Dilbert been imitated yet in a Tijuana Bible?
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 2, 2013
"Let me clarify what Scott means when he says that willpower is a myth. He is NOT saying that people never delay gratification. What he is saying is that people always choose the option that appears most attractive to them. To some people, that might be eating junk food. To others, it might be losing weight. Thus, someone will lose weight if they want to lose weight more than they want to eat junk food, and vice-versa. He is saying that people who constantly delay gratification simply have a preference for long term benefit over short term, not any special ability or skill.
Delaying gratification =/= willpower."

O.K., so now we have redefined willpower and therefore it no longer exists. I see.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 1, 2013
From personal experience, I agree. About 15 years ago, external !$%*!$%*!$%*! caused me to vividly imagine my future. I had never done that, and was behaving beyond recklessly. Within 3 months, my "emotional intelligence," or whatever you want to call it, increased dramatically. And I'm now doing what I wished I was doing 20 years ago. Thanks, Scott!
-8 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 1, 2013
I hope I'm not monopolizing the discussion here, but I have another problem with

Scott:"The "ability to delay gratification" is not a thing."

I don't know your definition of "thing" but if it's measurable it's a thing for me, that is, something that exists, either independently or as a property of something. That particular ability can be measured and you can watch kids develop it while they grow up.

I suspect that you somehow mix up "ability" with "free choice" in the magic sense. But the "ability" of a brain to delay gratification is in some sense comparable to the ability to, say, a fully automated train to scan the area a certain distance ahead. Neither soul nor magic involved, yet clearly an ability that affects the displayed behavior of the train and it can be different for different train models.
-5 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 1, 2013
Scott: "People do the one and only thing they are wired to do in each situation ..."

And this "what they are wired to" - by birth or conditioning - has a longer or shorter temporal horizont for each person, therefore causing different behavior different persons in the same situation. The distance of that horizont is the degree of "willpower" I was referring to.

Still no illusion involved.

Would it be easier for you if you just forgot about whatever magic-based semantic you suspect behind that term and treat the letters w, i, l, l, p, o, w, e and r in that order as a new word, unstained by any previous meaning?

Failing that, maybe we can get a bit further if you were to post your definition of "willpower"? That is, the one that makes you call it "illusion"? I'm really curious.
I know I've asked for it before, have I missed it?
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 1, 2013
"I can imagine the future so vividly that I was planning my retirement before I was out of grade school."

Bah! That's thinking too short term, I planned my final words when I was 10.

Had my funeral organised shortly after.
Oct 1, 2013
I write a[T] length...

p.s. great blog!
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 1, 2013
What if someone has a great imagination, but can only see a bleak future? How would they be affected under this theory?
-11 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 1, 2013
llamissimo:"Let me clarify what Scott means when he says that willpower is a myth. He is NOT saying that people never delay gratification. What he is saying is that people always choose the option that appears most attractive to them"
That has nothing to do with willpower. Every animal does this.

Willpower in any meaningful, especially legal sense means to what degree you can take responsibility for your actions.

And that means that /the degree/ of the ability for delaying gratification is a measure of willpower. Nothing illusionary there, just a simple metric.

The fact that the brain doesn't choose but judges doesn't make willpower illusory. Some brains can delay gratification better than others, therefore can think ahead better and therefore are assigned a higher value on the willpower scale. Even if, to them, it doesn' feel more "strenous" in terms of effort.

[The "ability to delay gratification" is not a thing. People do the one and only thing they are wired to do in each situation and later imagine they had the ability to do otherwise. There was never a possibility things could have gone the other way given the specific situation of the past moment. But there might have been discomfort at the time of deliberating the choice, and that discomfort is our sensation of "willpower." -- Scott]
-8 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 1, 2013
I disagree that foresight has anything to do with emotional intelligence.
There are plenty of psychopathic managers or politicians that have absolutely no emotional
intelligence but are wildly successful and will live well when old.

Emotional intelligence has to do with how well you can view yourself in the shoes of someone else, not how well you can view yourself in the future.

The primary processing unit is the system of mirror neurons in your brain and the
processing result is called "empathy". Ever felt that kick in the guts when viewing (or hearing) something normally associated with violence? That horrible wet crack when a car runs over a city pidgin? Or a crying child? Ever felt well when someone smiled at you? The strength and complexity of that response is the base for emotional intelligence. Everything else sits on top of that.

I think you're barking up the wrong tree here. Or did you want to write a different blog post and got mixed up?
Oct 1, 2013
When I vividly imagine my future, I panic. I become irritated. Then, in an attempt to rectify the future, I become impatient, rude and irrational.
Vividly imagining my future detracts from my emotional intelligence.

-3 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 30, 2013
I wonder which of these definitions of willpower Scott is denying:
o Self-discipline, training and control of oneself and one's conduct, usually for personal improvement
o Self-control, the ability of a person to exert his/her will over the inhibitions of their body or self
o Volition (psychology), the process of making and acting on decisions

Or if he has read something on the subject by a qualified expert in the field, such as "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength" by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister.

Or perhaps he was thinking of Nietzsche's "will to power" when he wrote that.

And, as always, I will continue to take my philosophical and financial advice from cartoonists.
+16 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 30, 2013
Let me clarify what Scott means when he says that willpower is a myth. He is NOT saying that people never delay gratification. What he is saying is that people always choose the option that appears most attractive to them. To some people, that might be eating junk food. To others, it might be losing weight. Thus, someone will lose weight if they want to lose weight more than they want to eat junk food, and vice-versa. He is saying that people who constantly delay gratification simply have a preference for long term benefit over short term, not any special ability or skill.
Delaying gratification =/= willpower.

[Exactly. -- Scott]
Sep 30, 2013
When it comes to the Thomas Edison statement... genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. What Edison really means is 1% inspiration, 1% perspiration and 98% ripping off Tesla.
Sep 30, 2013
I was with you until you wrote that will power is a superstition. Why do so many things that other people consider likely, or at least possible, do you simply dismiss out of hand? Do you ever wonder if you're a little too sure of everything?

As far as affirmations go, there's an example of a superstition. Perhaps next you can write how casting the chicken bones or using the I Ching to make decisions aligns your chakras with the universe, or some such drivel.

So affirmations worked for you. How do you know? You have nothing with which to compare it. Writing down "I will be a great rock star someday" may make you feel better, but will it teach you to play an instrument or infuse you with musical talent? Doubtful.

There have been many books written about the power of positive thinking. Oh, gee, there's even one with that title, go figure. But hard work and dedication are the only paths to success; merely telling yourself how great you're going to be some day does not make it so.

I asked you to comment on Thomas Edison's statement to the effect that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I guess this is your reply: Edison got it backwards.

Enjoy your superstition, Scott. I'll stick to hard work.

[I've never claimed affirmations worked for me. I simply reported what I did and what later happened. The new book discusses at length some of the reasons affirmations might give the appearance of working while staying within the bounds of science. -- Scott]
Sep 30, 2013
It's comparatively easy to imagine that security and health will grow in importance as you face the reality of age. But it's harder to imagine how your tastes and inclinations might change, reshaping the details.

I'm not just talking maturity or age adjustments here. I've embraced technology I once dismissed as unnecessary; I've drifted away from (still current) technology I once considered great fun. I still eat junk food, but I gravitate to different items on the menus. Politics, standards of female attractiveness, comfort levels in various situations . . . all change, and not always in a way that lines up with assumptions about age and experience.

Be careful what you plan for, and check frequently to make sure you still want it.
Sep 30, 2013
I give it a 50/50 chance. I figure it might help on the things you know and can imagine, but not the things you don't know or wouldn't know to imagine or the things that are completely out of your control.
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